Zone defenses giving the Illini offense fits
CHAMPAIGN — The scene was set for a special night.
A throng of fans lined up in freezing temperatures more than two hours before doors opened at the State Farm Center. Illinois students, almost all wearing script Illini throwback jerseys to match the team, jumped to bass-heavy songs blasting through the arena’s speakers.
The No. 20 Illini hosted No. 9 Maryland with first place in the Big Ten on the line Friday. It was Illinois’ first game hosting a ranked opponent as a ranked team since 2013.
The Illini jumped to an early 14-point lead behind unlikely 3-pointers from Da’Monte Williams and Giorgi Bezhanishvili.
The plot fizzled, though, as fans filed glumly out of the arena during Maryland’s free throws with 20 seconds left on its way to a 75-66 win. Illinois has lost two in a row after seizing first place in the conference with a seven-game winning streak.
The Illini (16-7, 8-4 Big Ten) lost for the second time to Maryland (19-4, 9-3), squandering a big lead each time. In both teams’ Big Ten opener on Dec. 7, Illinois lost a 15-point lead in a 59-58 defeat in College Park, Md.
Maryland is the first team to sweep Illinois this season, a fate the Illini suffered after a night of poor free-throw shooting and a disastrous second half.
Here are four takeaways from the loss.
1. Maryland’s zone gave Illinois fits.
Coaches often are vague when providing reasons for a result. Not so on Friday. Maryland coach Mark Turgeon and Illinois coach Brad Underwood were clear.
“The zone changed it for us,” Turgeon said.
The Terrapins had shown its 1-3-1 zone on only one possession this season, against Indiana. When Illinois’ hottest shooter, Trent Frazier, went to the bench with two fouls with 12 minutes, 12 seconds left in the first half, Maryland saw it as an invitation.
“We got back in the game and made some shots, and it gave us confidence,” Turgeon said.
The decision also highlighted Frazier’s importance to Illinois. The Illini led 24-12 when he was substituted out of the game and went into halftime leading only 42-40.
“You look for stats when they play well and when they don’t play well,” Turgeon said while making a point about Frazier’s impact. “We can’t leave that kid. We can’t let him get going. He’s dynamic. He can get going. He’s the one guy who can get going on 3 for them.”
Illinois also had struggled against Iowa’s zone in Sunday’s road loss.
Against Maryland, the Illini’s foul trouble forced them into some unusual lineups, which Underwood said was the biggest issue.
Underwood said he wasn’t worried about sitting Frazier because Illinois was in control of the game. He added, “It’s something we might think about differently now.”
2. The Illini can’t freeze.
The troublesome Maryland zone caused Illinois’ lead to evaporate even more after halftime.
The Illini missed their first 12 shots of the second half and went eight minutes without scoring a field goal to fall behind 53-44.
It was like watching a cold front move in after a sizzling summer day.
The Illini scored at a blistering rate to start the game, revving up the crowd with 29 points in the first nine minutes for a 29-15 lead.
They shot only 25.9% in the second half and 36.1% for the game. They made only 2 of 9 3-pointers after halftime.
3. Illinois can’t whiff at the free throw line.
Underwood correctly compared the Illini’s missed free throws to turnovers.
Illinois made only 14 of 24 free throws, while the Terrapins made 13 of 15. That’s 10 points they coughed up.
“You can’t miss free throws against the eighth-best team in the nation,” Underwood said. “Those are momentum plays.”
He said it takes a certain level of concentration for players to make free throws. Clearly the Illini were lacking at the line.
Giorgi Bezhanishvili missed all four of his free-throw attempts. He has made only 8 of 14 (57.1%) in Big Ten play. Kofi Cockburn made 7 of 10.
The Illini have three players who shoot worse than 70% at the line: Cockburn at 68.1%, Bezhanishvili at 64.4% and 65.4% from Kipper Nichols. They came into the game averaging 74% as a team but shot 58% against the Terps.
4. Pressure is building on Illinois.
This five-game stretch has long stood out on Illinois’ schedule.
An eight-game stretch has long stood out as the toughest part of Illinois’ schedule. They won the first three, at Purdue and Michigan and at home against Minnesota, but have dropped their last two at Iowa and at home against Maryland.
Illinois and the Terrapins came into the game tied for first place in the Big Ten. Now Maryland stands alone in first place with the Illini tied for second with their next opponent, Michigan State.
The glass-half-full perspective looks at Tuesday’s game in Champaign against the No. 11 Spartans as an opportunity to regain footing and avoid losing all the feel-good vibes from its strong start to conference play that included a seven-game winning streak that preceded the Iowa loss.
The Illini conclude the stretch with a week on the road at Rutgers and No. 22 Penn State.
A two-game losing streak is bearable. But is a longer losing streak?
The end goal for Illinois is still a strong seed for the Big Ten Tournament and an NCAA Tournament appearance, goals that are still well within reach.
Illinois’ DeMonte Williams shoots a 3-pointer against Maryland on Friday in Champaign.